“So what is it?”
Chowdhury looked down at them from the scaffolding, still elbow-deep in the creature’s side, before turning back to his task. “Alien.”
Rapture rolled her eyes. “We knew that, Doc. Be specific.”
“That’s as specific as we can be right now,” Mandy said, walking carefully down the steps, data pad under her arm. “This thing is an enigma. There’s no brain. There’s what looks like neural tissue throughout—”
“Not necessarily. Maybe,” Chowdhury shouted down.
“—the body. But it doesn’t seem to be a nervous system as such. There isn’t a complex enough network of tissue to be capable of controlling the creature.”
“So something else is controlling it?”
“Well… we can’t find any means of controlling it. Nothing biological, no tech. It’s just too simple; it’s meat wrapped in armor. It shouldn’t really be able to walk at all, if I understand biology.”
It’s meat wrapped in armor. It’s the muscle. “What if someone is controlling this thing with their powers?”
“How do you do your thing? How does Glowworm?” There’s still so much about all of this even we don’t understand. “What if someone’s superpower is controlling these things?”
Dreamland One’s voice came over the speakers. “More creatures are coming.”
“When?” I looked at my watch; Rapture was already headed towards the door. “And where?”
“Now, and here. Tundra has engaged one just outside the East wall. Two more are approaching from the Southwest. Please deploy immediately.”
Tundra is A team leader, now that Raijin’s gone. He’s the most powerful of the first-line capes, but his powers are simple: he had the pillbug encased in ice while I was still crossing the lawn to join him. The thing was still alive, inside the already-cracking frozen shell. Tundra’s hands were outstretched and were emanating a strengthening blue-white shimmer: he was building up for another. “Keep the other ones away from the building!”
I changed directions, let my speed carry me up and over the South wall, then stopped on the downslope to look around: two pillbugs coming out of the water to my right. Dreamland’s voice was in my earpiece: “Two more have just appeared in the parking lot to the North. Chasm and Glowworm.”
“Uh, I need some help with these two…” Who else was here? The Knack, if he was sober. Someone would be handing him a black coffee right now, just to be sure, but it’d be a few minutes — at least — until he was on the board. Merry Punkster had been in Vegas with me looking for Critical Hit, and had stayed behind to continue the search. Where was Massive?
As if on cue, he dropped heavily onto the soft earth beside me. “Sorry. Had to climb over.” He ran past me at the closest creature.
The water around the other two pillbugs jumped as hundreds of thousands of bits of gravel shot up out of the riverbed and flew off out of sight behind me. And Rapture. “Okay.”
It’s hard to run in water. I could dash in, deliver a blow, dash out, but I couldn’t get around behind them, and I couldn’t get in any serious damage until the things made dry land. Massive wasn’t having this problem, but he was also getting knocked around something awful himself. I was beside him for long enough to say, “You alright?” while he was regaining his feet, the pillbug bearing down on him.
“…Yeah.” He twisted into an uppercut. The head snapped back as before, in LA, but this time the creature kept its maw shut. Rapture’s gravel-swarm spear abraded the leathery skin of its face but did no significant damage. “Learned your lesson, didja?” Massive punched it again, but took two steps back.
“None of them are opening their mouths. No roaring, no bite attacks. Adapting their tactics,” Dreamland One observed. “Adapt ours. The underside is significantly more vulnerable than the carapace.”
Massive was running, away from the creature, towards the wall. Above him, The Knack was finally in position, had traded in his state-of-the-art rifle for something that looked like a bazooka and a bandolier full of shells. The two were gesturing to each other. I kept up my harrying tactics until I could think of something.
Rapture was trying something else: compressing balls of debris until they were white-hot nodes of screeching death, and shooting those at the pillbugs. They were marking up the armor, but not piercing it. She touched her ear, listened, and then looked at Massive.
Massive is nearly seven feet tall, he’s solid muscle. He’s also, super-power wise, dense enough to turn bullets and I don’t want to think about how heavy that means he is. He started to rise off the ground on a small, undulating carpet of tiny stones, struggling to keep his balance as he picked up speed. Rapture called out: “Aspen!”. He dropped into a ski-jump position.
Rapture flung Massive over the left-hand pillbug, close enough that he could reach down and grab the forward edge of the thing’s shell with both powerful hands as he passed. The flailing pillbug was pulled up and back, flipping it over in the water. As soon as Massive was clear, The Knack’s RPG round struck the creature’s belly, leaving a great gaping wound. Two more rounds followed, reducing its gut to a gaping ruin.
Okay. I needed room to pick up speed. I took off around the perimeter. Chasm’s golems surrounding two of them, grasping and pulling and clawing at one as Glowworm’s beams speared the other in the eye. Further, a pillbug fully off the ground, speared on ice spikes that had erupted beneath it, Tundra in mid-turn to head towards our side. I didn’t stop for any of it. By the time I passed Massive in mid-charge towards the second of our pillbugs I was leaving a wake of burning grass. I leapt at its face.
Massive told me later it was one of the loudest sounds he’d ever heard. A streak went by him, he felt a wave of heat, and then got knocked backwards by a shock wave. I landed next to him, unconscious, and the pillbug flipped end-over-end and landed back on its feet in the shallow water with a partially-caved in face. I’d hit it too hard.
But it was enough to cause it pain, and it screamed, involuntarily, control broken or simply overpowered; The Knack put an RPG straight down its gullet, finishing it like Rapture and Glowworm had finished the one in LA.
I woke up on a gurney, with Chowdhury standing over me. “See? I told you he was fine. I’m going back to the specimens.”
I was, in fact, sore all over. Mandy’s hand stroked my hair. “Nice job, babe.”
“Chasm turned his ankle jumping down off the wall.” She grinned. “Just clumsy. All the creatures are dead. And we got video of three of them appearing.”
“How do they—”
“It looks exactly like Raijin’s teleport effect. I mean exactly.” She paused for a moment, clearly disturbed. “D1 is analyzing the footage. He—”
“I’m up. I’m getting up.” It hurt, but I had to. “Help me up.”
We’ve been together a long time. Mandy knows better than to argue with me when I’ve made up my mind. Except where it comes to Junior, and where it comes to Junior, I know better than to argue with her at all. “All right.”
Rapture, Tundra, Massive, The Knack, and Glowworm were all in Dreamland One’s audience chamber, watching the enormous video screens. Stern — Glowworm, his powers now dormant — froze the playback on a particular frame. “There, see that?”
“Don’t mean nothing.” The Knack scoffed. “Just what it looks like to teleport, that’s all. The fuck are you implying?”
“Remember the Red Lich? It could teleport. Didn’t look anything like that.” Tundra shook his head. “I’m not saying it’s the boss’s fault, but maybe the power source is the same.”
“Sonny, we have to understand what’s going on.” Stern’s voice was soothing, a skill he’d picked up in his years of medical practice. “He’s not—”
“Whatever. You call me when you figure it out.” The Knack glowered at them, stalked past me and out the door.
Tundra nodded to me. “They let you out of medical already?”
“I wanted to see.”
“Well, there it is. Play it again, Stern.” A shot of a normal parking lot, could have been a still picture except for traffic in the upper right. Then a flash of swirling red and orange laced with streaks of lightning, empty cars being tossed out of the way, and two enormous ‘pillbugs’, one, two. They began crawling out of frame. “There’s three more angles, but this is the only one in color.”
I’d seen Raijin teleport in once or twice, live and in person. The movies never got it right. Plus they always had some idiot play him who could never do the accent. The accent is key. “Yeah.”
“And then there’s the fact that each successive attack was closer to headquarters. Like they were triangulating in on us.”
“Everybody on Earth knows where Dreamland Headquarters is now, it’s been—”
“Everybody on Earth. Everybody human.”
“Why home in on us? Why are we a target?”
Dreamland One’s voice spoke over the PA. “They’re not homing in on Dreamland Headquarters, but rather something it contains.” A small rectangular section of floor began to slide down, and then another, and another, until there was a set of stairs leading down beneath D1’s chamber.
We looked at each other. The Dreamland vault. McLeary’s been down here, twice or three times; Mandy, maybe once. None of us ever had.
Tundra went first. At the bottom of the steps was a long hallway lined with steel blast doors, like the one leading into D1’s sanctum; one was open. Through the door was a room containing only a glass case, and inside that: Raijin’s Eye Staff. It was glowing red, and vibrating like a cellphone receiving a call. “How long has it been doing that?”
“Unknown. There are no cameras or other sensors in the vault. I picked up the vibrations while re-calibrating one of the surface seismometers. You may thank Fleet’s shock wave for that necessity.”
“Don’t apologize; it worked.” Glowworm reassured, out of habit; this time his voice betrayed his worry.
“The staff is overloading. It cannot remain here. If there was time to get it off-planet, that would have been optimal, but my analysis indicates only hours remain. It must be taken to as remote a location as can be managed.”
“And then what?” Rapture shook her head. “How do we stop it from overloading?”
“We do not. We allow it to overload, and observe the results.”